Archives For Words and Rabble

My earliest years were spent on a ranch in Tennessee. My co-conspirator Wil lived next door, and we enjoyed an idyllic childhood. There were horses and ranch hands, thousands of acres stretching over hills and woods all the way up to Lookout Point. The vast land brimmed with stories of Indian lore, the sort that would make a young boy’s hair stand up, wild stories that would convince him, especially on deep summer nights, that he saw ghosts from the old tribes.

Wil owned a pony named Snowflake that grazed in a small pasture just behind his house. Snowflake was docile enough, but she possessed a minor mean streak that, for some inexplicable reason, flared up around me. I have this effect on certain creatures. One afternoon, we saddled the pony for Wil to take a ride, and when he returned, Wil handed me the reigns before he went inside. I hopped atop the miniature steed, eager for my opportunity to enact fantasies of Wyatt Earp or Kit Carson.

I couldn’t have been in the saddle more than two or three minutes when the pony turned stubborn. I insisted on at least a gallant trot; Snowflake insisted she meander. Meander? How could a law man ride into the blazing thick of a frontier range war with a horse who will only grunt and crunch on weeds? I was the boss here, and I’d have none of this insolence. I gripped the reigns and gave Snowflake a swift kick to the flank. The next few seconds were a blur. I remember an angry snort. I remember a lurching sensation, my stomach jumping to my throat. I remember being launched, like those times at the pool when my dad would catapult me from his shoulders high into the air.

I woke up flat on my back, the sun warming my face, a large horsefly buzzing near my head. I don’t know how long I had been out, but Snowflake stood lazily across the field, munching and content. I stood up, muscles throbbing. I wobbled several steps to pick up my Stetson cowboy hat. Gingerly, I walked to the pony and picked up the reigns dangling on the ground, leading her, humbly, back toward the house.

For the next week, I walked sore, battle scars of a man who’d been bucked from the back of a wild mare and lived to tell the tale. This was the summer of legend.

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Last year, a story hit the newswires of a pod of pilot whales floundering in perilously shallow water off the Everglades. Forty or Fifty short-finned whales stuck close to a narrow shoreline, and they were not moving back out to the deep waters, to safety. Several of the blackfish were ill, and this caused real worry among conservationists. Pilot whales are intensely loyal creatures, and when one of their number is sick or in jeopardy, the rest of the pod will not leave. The draw a circle and stay close.

This image – drawing a circle and sticking close – says a lot about the way I want to live, the kind of community I want to live in. I’ve sat with friends as we sifted through the rubble to try to piece their life back together. Friends have sat with me, in long stretches where I had nothing to contribute, where my darkness kept me locked up, closed off. But none of this mattered because we were friends, because we had entered together into a life where each of us were part of the whole. To be a friend means a lot of things, but at the least it has to mean we will not leave. We will stick close.

To be a friend is to be thankful for the joy and to endure the hard, knowing that life ebbs and flows. And if we miss one another in the sorrow, well, then we’ve simply missed one another. Whenever we don’t know what to do with a marriage that’s teetering or a child that’s on the edge or a friendship where’s there’s pain or uncertainty, we can simply draw a circle and stick close. I think we can do that.

Here’s a line from St. Pophyrios of Kavsokalyvia: Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.

And then here’s where St. Pop sent me: It is not sufficient to accumulate the facts. Someone’s got to sing us a song. Someone’s got to let the poetry loose. Someone’s got to bring the funk.

I’m trying to tend to these ideas with piece for A Deeper Story. I’m not sure if I quite said what I wanted to say, but then that’s part of the poetry, part of the funk.

Our first two years of marriage, when we lived in Tallahassee, Florida, Miska worked in the office of the Speaker of the House. Miska kept the staff’s schedules, greeted politicians and lobbyists and expended her energy grinding out the administrative minutia that push forward the rusty wheels of government. Miska even wore suits to work. None of this was right of course – it was death to her soul. Only, she didn’t exactly know this yet. She had to live into the deeper truths of who she is.

Over dinner at a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant (checkered tablecloths, little candle, the whole bit), we had a conversation that altered the trajectory of our life. We moved to Denver for Miska to go to grad school, and though I had no idea what my job would be or how we would pay the bills, I knew important things were happening. Something powerful and alive had begun to resurrect in her heart, and I was hellbent on not missing that beauty.

In the years since, Miska’s voice and art, her way in the world, has grown solid and true. She’s a joy-maker. Miska is, at her core, a creator. Wherever she decides to give her energy, good and beautiful things blossom.

For years, Miska has offered her creative art via her presence with people, in her work as a spiritual director. She’s kept most of her other craft close, only shared with family and a few friends. Sometimes this has frustrated me. I love what Miska creates, and I’ve wanted her to let her work out into the world. She has resisted. “The time’s not right,” she’d say. Typically, I’d feign agreement, while really thinking whatever...

Now, however, it’s time. I get to share at least some of her craft.

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The 12º chill did not stop him, though if he had even a lick of sense, it would have. The run was long and frigid, and the hot shower and hot coffee could not wrest the cold from his bones. Still, these were the hours he’d been given for writing his sermon, the words he listened for each week, the words that sometimes arrived as a slow burn but sometimes limped in with hat in hand, apologetic for their plainness.

So he settled by the fire, with his grandmother’s worn, patchwork quilt. He watched the flicker and curled his toes toward the warmth. Whatever comes will come. And it will all be a gift.

walk_forward_winn_collier_writerIn a culture obsessed with centerfold beauty and youthful vigor, we rarely know what to do with the fading years, the aging bodies. We are tempted to think of a withered frame or declining health as the great tragedy. However, I will tell you the greater tragedy, and it is not a life where the flame has been reduced to flicker. It is a life that never kindled the fire. The deepest sadness is not for the one with their life almost entirely spent, but the one who never really spent their life at all.

Some men live their years as mere shadows of other men. These shadow-men never buckle on their courage or plant two firm feet in a place or with a people they call their own. They never mark out their land. Some women never step into their strength or own their unique beauty. Existing as mere caricatures, they bridle their truest self. Perhaps their strength scares them, perhaps the disapproval of others chains them. I cannot say. I can only say that none of this is true living.

There comes a point in our life, and I think the 40′s is as good a decade as any, when we must decide to walk out from the shadows, to cast off the caricatures. We must be brave. While friendships and brotherhood will come to mean more and more to us, we will rely less and less on others’ opinions. We will live in the fellowship of courageous women and men, giving and receiving, journeying together – but we will not wait for their cues to brandish our gifts and unleash our passions. We see the glory in others, and we speak it. We see the glory in ourselves, and we receive it.

A final word. You can not make such a transition happen. Any pushy attempt at self-made maturity will only yield foolishness: self-importance, braggadocio and a brand of adult-adolescence far too prominent in our day. You can only watch and wait, listening to and learning from those wise ones ahead of you. And then, when your time comes (and here I believe the only wisdom we have is the old truth: you will know it when it arrives), we rise up and say yes. We walk forward.

Gratitude must be one of the most subversive powers on this crusty, old planet of ours. Not a feigned indebtedness or a back-handed form of social or relational manipulation. Just a plain, simple: Hey, I want you to know that I saw what you did – or I see who you are. I see that you’re trying your best. I’m thankful.

What would happen if President Obama strolled over to the GOP on the Hill and (removed from the cameras and without any follow-up request) said, Fellas, this is a fat, hairy mess we’ve got ourselves into, and tomorrow I’m sure I’m going to do something else you hate, God knows you make me want to put my fist through the wall most every morning. But for today, I want to tell you that I know you’re grinding yourself into the ground here. I know you love our country. Thanks. Or what if McConnell sneaked over to the Oval Office (maybe with a bottle of his local Kentucky Bourbon wrapped in a red bow and tucked under his arm) and said, Pres, you know that most days I think you’re a loon, but that’s not the whole story. I see you’re going grey and burning the candle at both ends while the whole world watches. I know you’re doing what you believe in. I know you love America. Thanks.

Yes, yes, I’m dreaming. But wouldn’t it be something?

Several days ago, I told Miska that if our boys ever figured out what they could get out of me if they consistently approached me with gentleness and gratitude rather than demands or arguments, we’d be ruined. They’d take us right to the poorhouse. I’m a softie, and simple gratitude – a hey, dad, thanks for working so hard and loving us so much - would make me putty in their hands.

We have a week now to simply give thanks. Tell people they mean something to you, that you see them. Offer God a simple thank you. Look your lover in the eye and say, If another gift never comes, you are enough.

I don’t know exactly what this gratitude will yield, but it will do something. I know it will.

 

The salty old folks used to say, “God doesn’t suffer fools.” But of course he does, all the time. God suffers me. And I’m thankful for that. God takes joy in the misfits and the bumblers.

Still, there is truth in these words. It’s one thing to do your darndest but still muff it often, as we are all prone to do. It is another thing altogether to give ourselves over to absurdity because we’re too full of ego or too afraid of complexity or don’t want the certain troubles that arrive with a fiery imagination. It’s a travesty how we trivialize deep mysteries, flatten textured beauties and silence the slow and careful voices — all because we want to control our vision of the world, want it to fit into our delicately packed boxes.

I’m no fan of stupidity, but I have a lot of patience with a bad idea. Heck, I have a couple of them every day. But I’ve little patience with one who steamrolls another person or manipulates the truth or puffs their proverbial chest to build their following at another’s expense. This life is grand. Human beings are amazing. There is wonder everywhere. What are we doing to one another, to our own beautiful soul, with our thoughtless, fatuous obsessions?

Abraham Heschel said, “The cure of the soul begins with a sense of embarrassment, embarrassment at our pettiness, prejudices envy and conceit, embarrassment at the profanation of life. A world that is full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival.”

Heschel’s right. We could use to be a little more embarrassed in our world. Embarrassed at what we’re doing to ourselves.

We were in Waco with my folks last week, and trips to the homeland mean lots of TexMex, lots of love and two grandparents spoiling two grandsons. My parents have always been exuberantly generous, but when you throw kids in the mix, things go absolutely bonkers. When my dad picked us up from the Dallas airport, his first order of business was to take his grandsons to the Lego store. Dad walked them into the shop and told them a dollar amount to spend, a figure that to a 10 and 11 year old provided the same rush the old prospectors must have felt when they hit the mother lode. Twenty minutes later, Seth came up to me with several items, plenty to work with but far less than his Pa told him he could spend. When I asked Seth whether he wanted anything else, he said, “This is enough. I don’t want to be greedy.” I tussled his hair. I was beaming.

A couple days later, Seth had a craving for a full-tilt breakfast at one of the local greasy spoons, just the sort of thing his Pa loves. “Go ask Pa if he’ll take you,” I said, “he’d love that.” Seth glanced down, uncertain. “I don’t know,” he answered. “I don’t want to be greedy.”

I’m not sure how this little streak of maturity has hit Seth all of a sudden, but he’s learning something of immense value in this glitzy, grabby world of ours. Seth is learning that there is enough, that he has enough. Seth is learning that we don’t have to stuff our fists and our mouths. Like most of us, he’ll surely continue to struggle with this, but Seth is on the right track. I’m shiny proud of him.

In the years to come, though, there will be another truth for Seth to learn, one that may come just as hard. It’s not time just yet, but soon enough, soon enough. This truth requires nuance, as well as courage. Someday, Seth will need to learn that there are things he’s right to be greedy for, some things he should long after and want more of, some shades of goodness that rightly leave us always hungry for another taste. While selfishly hoarding is one kind of evil, surrendering our good desires and our good hopes is an evil every bit as vile and ruinous. We are right to crave after (be greedy for, if you want to put it boldly) true friendship and deep love and work that matters. We want more goodness, more truth, more depth.

I’ve seen many men and women who, in their late years, know a meager, hollow existence. I want a streak of passion to sizzle up their spine. I want something to begin a slow burn in their gut, in their mind, in their body. I want them to be at least a tad greedy. Greedy for life.

Each year, I take the boys for an overnight trip for their birthday. Last year, Wyatt picked a train trek to DC. Two years in a row now, Seth has picked a weekend of Clemson football. Clemson (where the boys were born) and Baylor (where I grew up) are our two teams, but a visit to Grams, Pa and the Bears in Waco require a bit more time and financial commitment.

One of the great Clemson traditions is that after the game, fans flood the field as the team stays around for half an hour to sign autographs and pose for pictures. My hunch is that after many futile efforts to hold back the tidal wave cresting over the stadium walls, the athletic department threw up their hands and decided instead to create a massive marketing coup – they welcomed the chaos. Saturday night, watching thousands of young kids with wide eyes walking the turf amid larger-than-life Tigers, it was obvious they were solidifying the fan base for decades to come. The throngs pressed around the national play-makers: quarterback (and Heisman contender) Tajh Boyd, Roderick “Hot Rod” McDowell, Vic “The Beast” Beasley and Sammy Watkins, the streak of lightning who causes a collective short-breath in the stadium every time he touches the pigskin.

However, I watched several players (an offensive guard, maybe a defensive reserve or two) slowly make their way down the sideline, toward the tunnel to the locker room. No one shoved a mic in their face. If anyone asked them for an autograph, it was only the hyper kid running frantically player to player never even pausing to look the player in the eye or the disappointed kid who couldn’t break through the surging pack to the stars. I don’t imagine there were many people in the stadium wearing jerseys sporting their numbers. None of the left-alone players looked bothered or annoyed that they received none of the glamor. They’d done their work, and it was time for a shower. I wasn’t interested in autographs, but I did find myself thinking, Hey, man, you’re a fellow who digs into the trenches. We should sit down over coffee (or, I don’t know, a 4lb roast maybe). I’d like to hear your story.

When the athletic staff attempted to lead Tajh through the massive throng so the poor fellow could call it a day, Tajh kept stopping as hats and footballs were shoved in his chest. He looked exhausted. Tajh was doing his best to be the people’s man, but that was a whole lot of people. I wondered if he’d like to play the part of the second-string O-lineman, quietly strolling to the exit.

I don’t know what to make of all this, of our hero culture. I’ve no interest in making swipes. We’re desperate for women and men to respect, to believe in – and if sports participate in that, I won’t knock it. I do know we get carried away. One of our fellow Clemson fans, a middle-aged woman sitting near us, yelled at the offense in the third quarter, just before Tajh called out the snap: “Come on, part the Red Sea and let Moses through.”

It’s obviously gameday hyperbole, but I do wonder what it does to a soul to have this kind of weight placed on them. On the drive home Saturday night, we stopped for dinner. Seth, obviously overcome by the heat and exertion of the day, said, “Dad, you could totally have played professional football.” I chuckled, and I corrected him. Lack of talent aside, I could never have born that pressure. I hope we do not crush the good that is in the heroes we say we love.

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